HUANGSHI, CHINA (Oct. 25, 4 p.m. ET) — Facing declines in their traditional export markets in North America and Europe, Asia's wood-plastic composite makers are increasingly switching their focus to their regional markets, where local demand is growing more than 10 percent a year.
While that might suggest good times, it seems that too many people have had the same idea — the massive factory building binge among China's WPC makers in recent years has left the country saddled with overcapacity, executives said at a recent conference In China.
“The whole world's economy is declining and we have more WPC manufacturers opening up,” said Toland Lam, president of the Wood Plastic Composites Committee of the Beijing-based China Plastic Processing Industry Association.
“At this stage, we are really fighting each other on costs,” said Lam, who is also chairman of WPC firm Meixin Manufacturing Co. Ltd. in Shenzhen, Guangdong province.
Lam spoke during an interview at the CPPIA's International Forum of Wood Plastic Composites, held Oct. 21-22 in Huangshi city, Hubei province, where industry officials from around the world urged companies to diversify away from their traditional focus on decking and building materials to find potentially more profitable markets.
The solution, they said, was new technologies, cheaper feedstocks and more research to open up new markets such as auto parts made from wood-plastic and other natural fiber-plastic composite blends.
Carmakers in Europe, North America and Japan are increasingly using plastic composites made with wood, straw, rice and other materials, to help them reduce the weight of vehicles and lower the carbon footprint of the materials they use, said Mohini Sain, director of the Centre for Biocomposites and Biomaterials Processing at the University of Toronto.
European car makers are investing particularly heavily, with demand for natural fiber composite plastic there slated to grow 17 percent a year and reach 800,000 metric tons by 2016, Sain said.
Use of natural fiber composites is small now, with the average car having only about 35 pounds, compared with 2,000 pounds of steel.
But the potential is high, Sain said, and Chinese companies should invest more in research to open up the market in their country.
He pointed to North American auto component manufacturers like Magna International Inc. and its in-line compression molding technology and Flexform Technologies LLC with its technology to make door panels and other parts using natural fiber-polypropylene materials.
“Natural fiber composites will make a significant impact in light-weighting vehicles,” Sain told the conference. “I am very confident in the next five years that the Chinese WPC industry will go from the building and construction industry to the automotive industry.”
In an interview, Lam said Chinese companies are doing work in new technology areas like car components.
“We need this technology here,” Lam said. “But the thing is how to have the trust and confidence of the [Chinese] automakers to use our WPC technology like they do in the West. It will take some time to convince them.”
Still, he said, the industry needs to look for new applications, noting the potential for products like WPC furniture: “We cannot just do regular decking and these kind of products; we have to go to other products.”
Another official with the CPPIA's Wood Plastic Composite Committee said the success of the industry in China has brought in a lot of new entrants, and that is pinching prices.
Wayne Song, vice chairman of the CPPIA WPC committee and head of equipment maker Qinchuan Future Plastic Machinery Co. Ltd. in Baoji, Shaanxi Province, said many non-WPC companies see it as a growing market and jump in
“I see some people who used to be the cheapest guy in China and now they're complaining that other people are cheaper than him, and this kind of disturbs or makes the market difficult,” said Song. “One thing what I found is that if somebody becomes successful, all the people locally try to copy.”
China's WPC manufacturing capacity could top 1 million metric tons this year, according to a study at the conference from Sichuan University's College of Polymer Science and Engineering.
That suggests Chinese capacity has doubled since 2009, when the WPC committee estimated it was 500,000 metric tons.
Song estimated that China's WPC market is continuing to grow 25 percent a year, although he said the sales mix of Chinese companies is changing, with less focus on exports to the United States, currently the world's largest WPC market at about 800,000 metric tons of demand, and Europe.
Traditionally, more than 70 percent of China's WPC products have been exported.
While precise figures do not exist, Song said exports to North America and Europe are probably down 25 percent. But that's been made up with growth in China's domestic market and exports to non-Western markets, he said, so the industry has not overall seen any slowdown.
He said the biggest challenge WPC makers face in China today is finding qualified workers.
“What I feel very painfully and clearly is the shortage of people,” said Song.
Asia's WPC growth is not just in China.
A paper from Tokyo-based WPC Corporation, which licenses technology to 14 factories in China and Japan, said WPC markets are growing at least 10 percent a year in Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam, although those markets are small.
The largest of them, Japan, is only about 36,000 metric tons per year.
Most natural fiber composite use globally is in North America, which uses 4 pounds per person per year, and Europe, which uses one pound per person, Sain said. The rest of the world, by comparison, uses 0.2 pounds per person annually, he said.
A smattering of overseas executives joined several hundred Chinese delegates at the conference, including from paper products firms in Europe and India that said they were investigating setting up WPC factories in their countries.
The Indian market would accept products like doors, door frames, windows, rather than decks, said Jaydeep Chitlangia, managing director of Kolkata-based rice paper maker Madhya Bharat Papers Ltd. He said he was in China looking at WPC equipment.
“With the kind of housing that is happening in India, the potential [for WPC] is huge,” he said.